JACKSONVILLE -- Southern Baptists are still planting churches in the United States and around the world, despite the challenges posed by covid-19.
Doug Hixson, a former Arkansas pastor, is preparing to open Connection Church in Longmont, Colo., next year.
In Evanston, Wyo., Aaron Leggett has launched Bear River Church. It meets in the For Pete's Sake coffee shop on Main Street, directly beneath the Thankful Hearts Yoga studio.
Closer to home, Ahmad Muqtasid and his wife, Tagel, have begun a ministry focused on apartment dwellers in Maumelle.
Sunday evening, members of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention gathered at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville for a Mission Connection meet and greet dinner featuring Hixson, Muqtasid, south Florida missionary Tim Wolfe and Brian Smart of the Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention.
After dining on Greek food from Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe, they shifted their focus to missions.
"This really is about souls," said Bob Fielding, the state convention's consultant for chaplaincy and national/international missions.
While covid-19 restrictions placed barriers in the way of church planters, they didn't prove insurmountable, the speakers said.
Southern Baptists, at their annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in June, approved a strategic missions plan known as Vision 2025. It seeks to increase the number of Southern Baptist churches by 5,000 over the next five years; at last count, the denomination had 47,592 churches. The plan also calls for a net increase of 500 full-time, fully funded Southern Baptist missionaries.
Starting a congregation from scratch isn't easy, Hixson told the crowd.
"This is our second time to plant a church," he said. "Crazy people do it once. Insane people do it twice."
Twelve years ago, Hixson and his wife, Dana, moved to Spearfish, S.D., population 12,193, and founded a Southern Baptist church.
After a brief sojourn in Texas, the native Arkansas couple agreed to head north again.
"Why did we move to Longmont to plant the church? It's because there's an incredible need for a Gospel voice in a very beautiful, very dark place," he said.
Located 50 miles north of Denver, the city has a population of 98,885. Depression is high and drug use is widespread, he said. Marijuana has been legal for recreational use since 2012. Arkansas Razorbacks broadcasts are scarce, except when the team is winning, he noted.
Evangelicals are scarce in that fast-growing area of Colorado, he said.
"Nine out of every 10 people I see every day don't know Jesus," Hixson said, citing data from the North American Mission Board.
Since moving to the city in June, the Hixsons have focused on meeting their neighbors and building inroads into the community.
Connection Church isn't scheduled to have its public launch until fall of 2022.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Before launching an undertaking of this size, missionaries study the target area and scour the demographic data. But there's no man-made formula that guarantees success, Hixson said in an interview.
"No matter the strategy or the city or the focus, if you don't have a call from the Lord, it's impossible to complete the task," he said.
One person can't do it alone, his wife, Dana, said.
"Planting a church requires an entire family commitment," she said.
"[During] our first church plant, our children were young, in second grade and fifth grade, and everybody had a role. We all were involved," she said.
In this type of missionary work, "It takes all hands on deck, so to speak, and [it's] definitely a calling on not only Doug's life as the lead planter but on my life too," she said.
Initially a regional body, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced extraordinary growth during its first 150 years, in large part by planting churches in every corner of the nation.
Since the 1960s, it has been the nation's largest Protestant denomination. After peaking at 16.3 million in 2006, membership began a slow and steady decline, dropping to 14.1 million in 2020.
Baptists are eager to see those trends reversed. In part, they're driven by the belief that hell is real and that the souls of millions of Americans are in peril.
CHURCHES ALL OVER
Leggett, an Arkansas pastor for 17 years, used to have a church in Southside. Now he's focused on the southwest corner of Wyoming.
Evanston, population 11,747, is less than five miles from the Utah state line. For Southern Baptists, at least, Evanston hasn't been fertile soil.
"On a Sunday like yesterday morning, there might be 120 people in a Gospel-believing church somewhere," Leggett said.
Evanston Chamber of Commerce Director Tammy Staley said there are plenty of churches to choose from in her community.
"I'm counting ... about 25," she said.
"Pentecostals, Presbyterians, a Baptist [church], Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists [and] Jehovah's Witnesses," she said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the largest presence, but members of the Church of the Nazarene, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Assemblies of God also gather, she said.
'98% ARE LOST'
Regardless of the number of churches, the vast majority of the people in Evanston remains unreached, Leggett said Thursday.
"Over 98% [are] lost and haven't heard the good news of Jesus," he said, attributing the figure to the Wyoming Baptist State Convention.
"We always share the Gospel in a loving way, but nothing would be more unloving than not sharing the Gospel with people who haven't heard it or need to hear it,'' Leggett said.
While Hixson and Leggett have left Arkansas for missions work, Muqtasid views Central Arkansas as his mission field.
"Over 90% of people who live in the apartment communities have no church affiliation. That blew my mind," Muqtasid told the group, citing research by a parachurch organization known as Apartment Life.
While good churches already exist in Maumelle, they're not reaching most of the people who are renting apartments, he added.
"I was taught a long time ago in the small Baptist churches of Arkansas that if you want to catch a lot of fish, go where other people don't go fishing," he said.
"I specifically talked to God in prayer ... and God placed on my heart to go into apartment communities," he said.
In August, he and his wife, Tagel, moved out of their home and moved into the River Pointe apartment complex, he said.
Rather than rushing to launch a conventional church with Sunday morning worship services, Muqtasid is focusing first on relationship-building and small-group evangelism. At times, he has revised his plans, postponing larger gatherings due to health concerns.
"We were birthed in covid-19 so it's always been a cautious approach, a prayerful approach," he said.